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Myanmar's military junta seeks ban on VPNs and digital currency

People would no longer be able to rely on VPNs for their preferred communication tool, Facebook

Myanmar's military junta has floated a cyber security law that would ban the use of virtual private networks, under penalty of imprisonment and/or fines, leaving digital rights organisations concerned about the effects of further closing the country off digitally to the outside world.

The draft bill, dated January 13 is signed by Soe Thein, permanent secretary of the military's transport and communications ministry and is undergoing request for comments until January 28. Upon adoption, it will subject VPN users to between one and three years inside, and fines of up to five million Myanmar Kyats ($2,800).

The bill also bans the use of digital currency, under penalty of imprisonment for six months to a year, and the same fine used to deter VPN use.

Furthermore, it obligates service providers to provide the personal information of users – like name, address and access history – to authorities if requested. Similar stipulations have caused telcos to leave the region in the past. Norwegian mobile carrier Telenor left in September 2021 when the ruling junta wanted to intercept calls carried on its network.

For many in Myanmar, Facebook is synonymous with the internet. As the country faced a military coup in February 2021, the newly installed Tatmadaw banned Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, prompting users in the country to rely on VPNs to retain access to their preferred online communication services.

Around the same time as the prohibition on social media, a proposed VPN ban hit strong objections from both tech and commerce advocate organisations, thus allowing the country's internet users to continue to communicate without changing platforms.

BBC Myanmar reported that the January 13 bill and its 115 clauses is stronger than the Junta's efforts in 2021.

VPNs have long been a restricted technology in China, which also seeks to limit the material its citizens can access.

Digital and human rights advocates fear a VPN ban will damage pro-democracy organisations, like the National Unity Government, and benefit the military junta.

"The proposed bill is draconian, even by the standards of the Burmese military. The first version of the bill proposed in February 2021 was dropped after industry and civil society united to push back, but the military has been set on getting its way," Alp Toker, director of NetBlocks, told The Register.

NetBlocks describes itself as "a global internet monitor working at the intersection of digital rights, cybersecurity and internet governance."

Toker said VPN services were "requisite to connect with the outside world from Myanmar since the coup, due to restrictions on social media and international platforms imposed by the post-coup authority," as well as "essential for business and international trade, particularly in the digital services sector."

"These are certain to have a chilling effect on political speech and human rights, but ultimately this is only going to turn public sentiment further against military rule," added Toker. ®

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